The overture of Thirteen (Fox Searchlight) is mesmerizingly horrible. Two girls in their early teens sit on a bed, having evidently just ingested drugs that dull their capacity for pain. One tells the other to hit her, hard. After five or six blows back and forth, both are laughing hysterically and bleeding, and one—the blonde, Tracy, played by Evan Rachel Wood—is on the brink of passing out. I’ve seen people abuse themselves physically, but never two young girls, and never with this kind of giggly determination. I hope it doesn’t mean I’m out of touch.
After that walloping start, Thirteen, which is set in Los Angeles, jumps back in time to introduce Tracy, four months earlier, when she was still a good girl: when she listened to her mom and didn’t pierce herself, use drugs, steal, or have sex with boys. The instrument of change is the biblically named Evie (Nikki Reed), the dark girl on the bed, the girl the boys (and the other girls) can’t take their eyes off in the schoolyard. Early in the movie, Tracy and Evie size each other up, and the director, Catherine Hardwicke, gives us quick cuts of Evie’s chains, studs, and Melrose Avenue adornments. Evie invites Tracy—who hangs out with studious types—to go shopping and gives Tracy what turns out to be a bogus cell-phone number. It was a cruel joke, but Tracy pushes past it. She tracks down Evie at a Melrose boutique and earns the girl’s respect by shoplifting with her and then by stealing the wallet of a woman on a bench.
Thirteen is a cautionary bad-girl picture, a genre that’s been kicking around since before movies could talk: It’s the stuff of laughable ‘50s juvenile delinquent films, ‘70s TV movies with Linda Blair, and Afterschool Specials. Given its formulaic premise, you wouldn’t guess that this film would be such an emotional workout. But that overture is emblematic: Thirteen has a way of smashing through your defenses. Hardwicke has goosed up the old melodramatic formula with a neorealist syntax and up-to-the-minute cultural nuances and violence—shots of girls piercing each other’s navels, for instance. The scenes haven’t been written from the outside, by middle-aged white guys wagging their fingers while serving up sex and drugs and horror for the audience’s delectation. What in outline sounds like one cheesy melodrama has a first-person ring.
In fact, the script was co-written (with director Hardwicke) by its bad girl, 15-year-old Nikki Reed, who was evidently judged too dark and surly-looking to play a version of herself. You can understand the producers’ preference for Wood, though, with her willowy limbs, flawless skin, and cool blue eyes. Wood is a good, self-possessed actress, but she was cast because she’s more conventionally defile-able than Reed. You don’t want to see her mess up those lovely features. And while Thirteen isn’t explicitly racist, the scenes in which she’s surrounded by tall, good-looking black boys seem meant to set off anti-miscegenation bells in even the most resolute white liberals.
The movie’s target, of course, is parents, who are either unwilling or unable to keep their kids from succumbing to the relentless temptations of the culture. Tracy’s divorced mom, Melanie (Holly Hunter), is a children’s hairdresser who works out of her cluttered L.A. house, which seems always full of bohemian types lugging their kids around. She and Tracy have an intimate relationship physically: They naturally hug and touch each other, and it’s when Tracy pulls back into a zone of privacy—when she starts doing things to her body that her mom can’t see—that the trouble starts. It’s a measure of this movie’s neglectful universe that Melanie is seen as a strong, desirable mom by Evie, whose guardian, Brooke (Deborah Kara Unger), mutilates herself with plastic surgery and pays attention to Evie mostly when she needs someone to fetch her another beer.
Holly Hunter is breathtaking in this movie: When she stares at her daughter beseechingly, she turns helplessness into something volcanically active. Melanie takes steps to arrest her daughter’s slide, but those steps aren’t fast or firm enough, and she has no confidence in her own strength; she expends too much energy trying to enlist the aid of Tracy’s dad. (He’s the sort of man who asks what the problem is “in a nutshell,” when no problem in an adolescent girl’s life can be shrunk to the size of a nut.) And Melanie has a temptation of her own: an occasional live-in boyfriend named Brady (Jeremy Sisto), who once collapsed over a crack pipe in Tracy’s presence. Brady is actually a nice guy—he’s the Ward Cleaver of crack-head boyfriends—but he’s not about to set a wayward 13-year-old girl straight.
None of this is new, but the language of the movie is: In quick cuts, Hardwicke zooms in on billboards pushing clothes and accessories—stuff to buy or shoplift, stuff to want. And that stuff isn’t negligible. When Tracy, Evie, and another friend saunter across the school grounds in their tight jeans, they’re so buoyed by their new costumes (and pubescent bodies) that they seem weightless. When they splash in a fountain, the water catches the light and looks like silver-nitrate scratches on the frame: It’s as if these girls had the power to transform the celluloid. The tactile, visceral filmmaking becomes nearly unbearable in the climactic scenes: When Melanie seizes Tracy and discovers her self-inflicted razor cuts, Thirteen is like a primal scream. By then, the color has been leeched from the image, and the camera is right on top of the actors. You feel you’re down on the floor with them, fighting for breath.
OK, Thirteen is a tad reactionary: It doesn’t allow that it can be healthy for kids to reject their parents’ values and find their own, even if that means doing non-PG-13 things before they’re ready. On the other hand, Tracy is thirteen. In the ‘30s, corruption-of-innocence movies were made about 21-year-olds in the big city. By the ‘50s and early ‘60s, the age had dropped to 16 or 17. That it’s middle school now changes everything, I think—and not just because I have two little girls. Thirteen is too early for kids to be at the mercy of rapacious market forces. I’m not saying lock up your daughters, and neither is Thirteen. I’m saying inspect them regularly for piercings.